George Washington, America’s First Spymaster

Today is President’s Day.  George Washington’s Birthday is February 22nd, but since 1971 the federal holiday was uprooted from the fixed date and transplanted to the third Monday in February.  Sadly, most Americans think of George Washington’s Birthday as a sales bit on car commercials and without much thought about the Patriot that led America to victory in the American Revolution and becoming the first President of our country.


I think of George Washington frequently because as I drive around Long Island, I usually pass a sign somewhere that says “George Washington slept here.”   The Battle of Long Island was the first major battle of the American Revolution.  George Washington’s army vastly outnumbered with little ammunition, ended up being defeated by the British who had the strongest and best-equipped army in the world.  Washington quickly realized that to win the war, he would have to outsmart the enemy and needed information about the British troops stationed in New York City, the heart of the British operations.   George Washington became America’s first spymaster when he asked his Chief of Intelligence, Benjamin Tallmadge to organize a spy ring that was called The Culper Spy Ring in 1778.  The purpose of the ring was to gather intelligence in New York City and pass it along to Washington.  An elaborate system of riders and couriers who used aliases passed on messages to Washington via a coded dictionary and invisible ink.

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There are two great ways to learn about George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring.  One way is to visit the Three Village Historical Society’s exhibit “Spies! How A Group of Long Island Patriots Helped George Washington Win the Revolution”.  Another way is to check out each stop on The Culper Spy Ring Tour.  Both options offer a fun way to spend the afternoon and learn about the impact that George Washington and the courageous spies had on winning the American Revolution.

Three Village Historical Society - Spies! How a Group of Long Island Patriots Helped George Washington in the Revolution


Three Village Historical Society in Setauket, NY

Three Village Historical Society in Setauket, NY

We visited this small exhibit this past summer and learned the story of the Culper Spy Ring through interactive fun-filled educational games.  There were also several hands-on activities like writing with quill pens and invisible ink. We also had the opportunity to decode spy letters using the Tallmadge’s Spy Code.

Testing out the invisible ink.

The volunteer at the museum is demonstrating the use of out the invisible ink.


Tallmadge Code

Tallmadge Code

The Three Village Historical Society is at 93 North Country Road in Setauket, New York.  The exhibit hours are only on Sundays except for January and February.   In honor of President’s Day they, hours are from 10 am to 4 pm.  Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children.

The Culper Spy Ring Tour

LINSHA_title6The Long Island North Shore Heritage Area allows you to follow in the footsteps of the spies by driving along Route 25A.  Before starting the tour, call 631-498-4740 on your cell phone and a passenger in the car can enter the site numbers for the story of the spies that helped George Washington win the war.  Some stops are just markers, but you can tour the Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay or the Brewster House in East Setauket.  You can also check out the official George Washington letters to the spies at the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library at Stony Brook University.

Did you know that George Washington was a spy?  Will you be visiting Long Island’s North Shore to learn about the Culper Spy Ring?

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